Image by Steve Pavey, C/O Facebook
In 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was a 23 year old, 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army leading soldiers in West Germany. Outwardly, I was a confident, fast-tracking, officer, seeking fame and fortune through the growing military industrial machine of America. But inwardly, I was a doubtful, wounded young man, desperately trying to hide the out-of-placeness felt by so many Black men trying to make their way in a world that considers them, less than. Like the buzz of underground activity all across Eastern Europe prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, attending the Mystic Soul Conference 2018 (MSC18) awoke in me an awareness that dominant, oppressive systems of power and control can collapse utterly and mysteriously. They collapse when oppressed and intentionally marginalized people, experiencing perpetual out-of-placeness, or incongruity, begin to gather, support and center one another in contemplative practices and mysticism. The Divine seems compelled into action and walls come tumbling down.
“The mark of a Spirit-informed movement is incongruity. The sheer power of the systems of oppression looms impenetrably just before they crumble in seemingly inexplicable ways.”
- Barbara A. Holmes
Three such walls have crumbled in my lifetime: the wall of legal segregation in the United States in the 60’s, the Berlin Wall in the 80’s, and the wall of Apartheid in South Africa in the 90’s. Before they fell, no one really saw it coming. The forces that held them up seemed insurmountable. Yet, behind each wall was an underground gathering of Spirit-informed, out-of-place, seemingly, out-of-touch people who dared believe that things could be different.
Many of these people underground were contemplative, mystical types who engaged in individual and collective practices that prepared them to receive great wisdom, fortitude, creativity and perseverance. Eventually their waiting turned into fulfillment as walls tumbled down and obstacles were removed from their lives. Walls of insurmountability can come down in our own lives, no matter how permanent and imposing they seem. Engagement in contemplative, mystical practices seems to catalyze such occurrences.
This reminds me of the people of Mystic Soul.
As Barbara A. Holmes, in her book, Unspeakable Joy states, walls, like those in the biblical account of the Walls of Jericho, can come crumbling down when a band of out-of-place dreamers gather and do seemingly insignificant things. In Jericho, marching around a great wall and blowing trumpets did the trick. In places all across the American South, people prayed, sang together and engaged in nonviolent protests facing dogs, fire hoses and jail cells, and the walls came tumbling down. In South Africa, a once violent leader spends 26 years in prison and comes out full of compassion and forgiveness and sparks a revolution that ends five decades of Apartheid rule.
Could it be that this band of out-of-place dreamers catalyzed by the Mystic Soul Project, in flow with other like-minded movements arising across our country, will help bring about the end of four centuries of slavery, subjugation and exploitation of people of color and those on the margins of the margins- which includes queer and trans individuals?
Mystic Soul, led by three beautiful and powerful women, Teresa Pasquale Mateus, Ra Mendoza and Jade Perry, have manifested a vision that is right in line with movements of the past that have brought walls down. Theirs, like great leaders of the past, is a vision of justice emerging out of somewhere beyond the control of any monarchy or government. It emanates from an interior quality of character that comes from journeying with the Divine. It animates contemplative, mystical people persevering in hope, love, prayer and practices. It leads to results that are from out of this visible world.
The past two years of my life have been all about this journey of union with the Divine. It has been my journey of becoming a contemplative. During this time, I’ve mysteriously been guided, sustained and empowered by Spirit into relationships with others who are also becoming aware of new ways of being in this world. Up until I was introduced to the Mystic Soul Project, my contemplative guides have all been white and largely under the sway of Eurocentric theological models. I am greatly indebted to them and I love them dearly. However, as I’ve embraced the contemplative, mystical way, I’ve been sensing that something was missing. Mystic Soul was that something. The Eurocentric emphasis is on silence and individual pursuit. The Mystic Soul emphasis, drawing from Africana and Indigenous traditions from across the globe, are more collective and exuberant in nature. In my five decades of life, I have become convinced that these two emphases must fuse together and become something greater than the sum of their parts.
Since attending Mystic Soul, my overwhelming impression of the conference has been: this was the most generative conference I’ve ever experienced in my life. But, the real power of the conference is something that will only be realized over time as relationships are formed, sustained and new ways of being in the world together emerge and change the paradigms that have guided us to this point. We have never been alone in our struggles to overcome incongruity and out-of-placeness in a culture that subjugates our existence. MSC18 manifested the reality that I am far from being alone and the realization was glorious.
MSC18 put me in a healing environment of human connection with people of all shapes, colors, socioeconomic statuses, faith traditions and gender orientations, and affirmed for me: your incongruence within the dominant culture is welcome here. In fact, your incongruence will be centered here, and together, we will do great things!
For the past 8 years of my life I have pursued a calling that came through Jesus’ words announcing his ministry to the world:
God’s Spirit is on me;
he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,
Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and
recovery of sight to the blind,
To set the burdened and battered free…
Luke 4:18, The Message
Pursuing this calling has come at great personal sacrifice, amazingly at the hands of the institutions that I thought would be the stewards of this call. I had to step away from my dream ministry job at a 10,000+ person megachurch because the transactional realities of the church growth movement don’t line up so well with the incarnational imperatives of Christian Community Development (CCD) and the life I realized Jesus was calling us to live. I looked in vain to find communities that are doing the work in a way that truly brings healing and human connection. I could not find them.
At Mystic Soul, I met numerous people who have similar stories, stories of trying to change the world while fitting in or being accepted by mainstream gatekeepers with the power to either bless or curse. It took me a while to realize that I’m not the only one, and it has been worth the wait. It’s taken me even longer to know that there are others who are actively working to overcome these exclusive systems and create new ones that are inclusive of all people. This is why the Mystic Soul Project captivated my attention from the moment I heard about it, and it did not disappoint as I experienced the conference.
The Mystic Soul Project truly delivered on it’s promise to create spaces that center the voices, teaching, practices, and wisdom of People of Color (POC) at the intersections of mysticism, activism & healing. It was a free flowing affair packed with options. The Interactive Schedule was overwhelming at first, but as I settled in and realized it was okay not to try and experience everything, I was able to relax. I made this contemplative commitment to myself, wherever I find myself during this conference, I am going to be fully present there. This commitment served me well, and I just thoroughly enjoyed myself.
The Centering Space, or main area for all the events was set up in a circular format, not auditorium style, representing hierarchy and a one-way flow of information. Right from the start it felt like a meeting of equals gathering to get to the heart of the matter. The three amazing co-founders, Teresa, Jade and Ra, welcomed everyone and set the tone. Then, they turned it over to a beautifully assembled cast of facilitators and leaders who carried us through a luminous flow of love, creativity and wisdom over the course of three days.
There were so many things that stood out for me and I’m only able to cover a selected few. One of the most surprising parts of the conference was hearing the ReSound Quartet opening night. This foursome of Black classical musicians offered a brief performance of music by Black composers, of which I had no idea even existed. Throughout their performance, the musicians illuminated the stories of each composer, bringing them to life and connecting our complex, racialized past to the present. Through their descriptions of the trials and the triumphs of these composers, they intertwined their own, and everyone with a dream of bringing something beautiful into the world felt connected. I was so inspired that I attended the workshop put on by Danielle Taylor, one of the musicians, and heard more about the history and impact of black composers.
All during the conference we were encouraged to take care of ourselves and to do other things besides just attend workshops and lectures. L!ve Cafe was serving up caffeine and other treats as poets sang and brought spoken word. There was a Spirit Care space for POC to care for themselves and receive spiritual care and support, and for Non POC to process and unpack whiteness and addiction to dominant culture as well as receive spiritual care. The Embodied Healing Space was truly something revolutionary and should one day become standard fare at conventions and conferences across the world. The Haji Healing Salon, based on the South Side of Chicago, anchored this space and stewarded healing resources for transformation activated by powerful instructors, therapists and healers, with the shared intention of inspiring and supporting people on a healing path.
I didn’t know what I was getting into when I tried Thai massage in the Embodied Healing Space, but I can tell you that it transformed my life, at least in that moment. I spoke with numerous people throughout the weekend and they were all sharing similar stories of their experiences. I hope this little overview gives you some sense of the excitement and promise I see in the Mystic Soul Project.
I could go on and on about the conference, but I won’t. Can you tell that I am convinced this was the most life giving conference I’ve ever attended, that I have great hopes that the movement created by the founders will be sustained?
The influence of Barbara A. Holmes on the Mystic Soul movement cannot be overstated and I’d like to end this lengthy post with a quote from her that captures what’s at stake here:
“If a system is corrupt and corroded from the inside out, then any shaking will cause it to fall. Yet the mark of dominant orders is their expert ability to hide the rot and internal decay, so that those who act in opposition find themselves facing the illusion of an impenetrable behemoth.”
The United States was built on a shaky foundation of the supremacy of one people group, and one gender, over the humanity and dignity of many others. And now, after a few hundred years, the cracks and chinks of that corrupted and corrosive foundation are evident everywhere, even while the permanence of the wall it sustains feels insurmountable.
The amazing thing is, right there in our founding documents, are the aspirational ideals that were supposed to set us apart, make us an exception in the world, and create a City on a Hill for the world to see and emulate. However, we have yet to approach the aspirations that our founders miraculously penned through the haze of their self-induced superiority: We hold these truths to be self evident that all men [persons] are created equal…, and now we stand on the precipice of the demise of this grand experiment.
However, I believe that the Mystic Soul Project is one of the catalytic forces that will, not only help bring down the walls of our skewed systems and structures that have guided and misguided our nation, but Mystic Soul will be a platform upon which the Beloved Community will grow, flourish and realize the dream that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights… And together, we will create a new world where people are able to flourish in their relationships and their work (giftings) for the common good of all humanity.
Author Bio: Byron is a decorated, US Army officer and combat veteran, with extensive leadership experience in business, ministry and nonprofit. His career has been about building up people and unifying teams, but raising five kids in a blended home with his wife, Lisa, is where his greatest learning took place. Byron is trained in leadership, history, project management, and Christian Community Development through the Christian Community Development Association. He is the Founder and President of Praxis Collaborative & Journeys, LLC and is a current student in the Living School at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM. And he is helping lead the formation of the Mystic Soul community network in Virginia Beach-Hampton Roads.Byron’s dream is to help people experience a renewed sense of purpose and unity as we journey together through the hardships and challenges of this great adventure called life.